May 29, 2020

What you need to know about Florida's prisons

Amy Martinez | 2/26/2020

Challenge: Aging Infrastructure

The average age of Florida’s publicly run prisons is over 40. Corrections officials say years of underfunding have led to leaking roofs and a motor-vehicle fleet that’s mostly past its useful life. Nearly two-thirds of state prisons lack air-conditioning.

The Guards

Challenge: Turnover

The annual turnover rate among state prison guards is 36%. Nearly half have been on the job for fewer than two years, and about 3,000 guard positions are vacant, despite a recent effort to attract recruits. Last year, the state lowered the job’s minimum age requirement from 19 to 18.

Prison officials, citing “critically low” staffing levels, now hope to launch a $60-million retention pay plan and a $29-million pilot program to test 8½-hour work shifts in a third of state prisons. In 2012, state prisons moved to 12- hour shifts to offset staff reductions. Prison officials say the longer workdays have contributed to guard fatigue and burnout, but union officials support 12-hour shifts, saying they allow guards to work fewer days and spend less time and money on commuting.

Both sides agree that hiring and retaining guards is a major problem. Under the agency’s retention pay plan, subject to legislative approval, guards with two years of service would get a $1,500 pay increase, and those with five years would get $2,500.

“The starting salary for a corrections officer is $33,500. Let’s be honest, there’s not a lot of people who want to take a job where you’re risking your life for $33,500,” says Jimmy Baiardi, of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, the union representing prison guards.

One consequence of understaffing and low pay for prison guards is corruption. Last year, 103 state corrections employees were arrested on charges related to contraband, bribery or other misconduct while on the job, up from 81 staff arrests in the prior year.

The Inmates

Florida, the nation’s third-largest state, has the third-largest inmate population among the states, incarcerating around 96,000 people. Florida’s rate of incarceration — about 470 of every 100,000 residents — is well above the national average, however, and the 10th-highest in the U.S., according to a 2017 state-commissioned report by Boston-based Crime and Justice Institute, a non-profit research group.

  • The number of inmates has fallen — from 100,050 in 2014-15 to 95,626 in 2018-19 — but those in custody are staying longer, with the average length of stay rising by 20% from 35 months to 42 between 2014 and 2018.
  • Those incarcerated in Florida’s prisons are disproportionate: Male (93.1%) Black (47%) Sentenced for violent crimes (55%)
  • Two out of three inmates are between 25-34 (30%) and 35-49 (36%).

Challenge: Gang Activity

State officials say more prisoners are joining gangs to seek protection from violence or take advantage of staffing shortages. Between 2008 and 2018, prisoner-on-prisoner and prisoner-on-staff assaults increased 67% and 46%, respectively, while incidents of staff using force against prisoners rose 54%. Prison reform advocates warn that many felons are leaving prison more inclined to criminality than when they went in.

Challenge: Older Prisoners

The average age of Florida prisoners has increased from 32 in 1996 to over 40 today. Corrections officials predict that while the total prison population will flatten out or dip in the next few years, the number of elderly prisoners will grow from 23,412 in 2018 to 27,576 by 2024, an 18% increase. This means more money spent on inmate health care. According to Florida TaxWatch, health care for older prisoners costs between four and five times what it does for prisoners under 50.

Challenge: Education Programming

A third of Florida prisoners read below a sixth-grade level, and two-thirds lack a high school diploma, yet fewer prisoners are getting their GEDs. In 2018, roughly 1,200 state prisoners earned a high school diploma or the equivalent, down from more than 2,600 in 2010. Because of scarce resources, state prisons limit eligibility for adult basic education courses to prisoners who have less than three years left to serve; only those due to be released in five years or less can participate in vocational training.

Recidivism: One in four Florida prisoners is back in prison within three years of release — a number that has changed little over the past decade. Among state prisoners released in 2015, 24.7% returned to prison by the end of 2018. The three-year recidivism rate among those released in 2010 was 25.7%.

Issue: Sentencing

How Long?

From 1980 until its peak in 2010, Florida’s prison population climbed from about 21,000 to more than 102,000, a nearly 400% increase. The catalyst was a “get-tough-on-crime” movement that saw the virtual elimination of parole in Florida, new mandatory-minimum prison terms and a 1994 state law that requires prisoners to serve at least 85% of their sentences before being released.

Since 2010, the prison population has declined to about 96,000 amid record-low unemployment and a drop in crime. The population would have shrunk more if not for the fact that today’s prisoners tend to stay locked up longer: While prison admissions fell by 28% between 2007 and 2016, the average length of stay rose by 20% from 35 months to 42 months during the same period.

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